Friday, September 29, 2017

Interview: In conversation with James Clements from The Diana Tapes

James Clements is the creator of The Diana tapes, now playing in Toronto at the Red Sandcastle theatre. The production runs from September 20th to October 7th. He is Co-Artistic Director of the theatre company, What Will the Neighbors Say For more information visit www.wwtns.org

What inspired you to create this show?

Being from Scotland, and certainly not raised in a monarchist household, I always found the concept of monarchy fascinating - why it meant so much to so many people, why it had such a powerful hold over popular imagination, why the taxpayer continued to fund it. It just says so much about class, deference, identity in Britain - it's endlessly fascinating to me, really. At university at NYU, I studied drama and history, and my focus in both tended to centre on unpacking or analyzing iconic, impactful figures (Eva Peron, Arthur Balfour, Margaret Thatcher), culminating in a senior thesis about Princess Diana, which became the basis for this play. I also see her stamp on our modern world - politics as celebrity, confession as nobility, image as story, presentation as reality, emotion as currency. She, to me, embodied these shifts.

What research is involved in putting a show like this together?

I did a great deal of research in preparation for The Diana Tapes. With the support of an NYU DURF Research Grant, I holed up in the British Library scanning hundreds of pages of media coverage concerning the Princess. I also heavily utilized Andrew Morton's biography, which the play is about - the 1997 edition had the transcripts of all the tapes, which are featured in our play, and even some scans of her handwritten edits. I approached it as a loaded source rather than a gospel - a manifesto for both of them. Then, for the more impartial, factual context, I perused countless external sources (especially helpful were Tina Brown's fantastic biography, "After Diana" edited by Mandy Merck, and "The Abolition of Britain: from Winston Churchill to Princess Diana" by Peter Hitchens) in addition to documentaries featuring interviews with key players. Once I had gathered all my materials, it was about switching off my historian brain and deciding, as a playwright and actor, what the core human story of it all was.

How long have you been developing this show?

I began my research in 2014, and completed the first draft of the script in 2016.I then assembled the cast and design team (half Scottish and half American), and we then selected the wonderful Wednesday Derrico to direct the Edinburgh Fringe workshop that summer. The experience was so positive that we ended up forming our company, What Will the Neighbours Say?,and unanimously agreed to continue working with our design and director team. From then on, I've been regularly re-drafting and editing as we have toured the show through North America.

This year is the 20th anniversary of Diana's death, what are your thoughts about her?

She is an incredibly complex figure. On a superficial level, its very easy to dismiss her as this white, heteronormative figure from a quaint and archaic institution. Critics, perhaps correctly, note her excessive privilege, her self-indulgence, her shallowness. She is decried as a manipulator. People think she shouldn’t have mattered to people in the late 20th century. In a sense, I don’t really disagree with any of that. To me, though, it just makes her all the more important, fascinating and real. She was all of those things - and yet she emphatically did matter, both despite and because of them. I think there is something very sexist and academic and high-and-mighty about dismissing her as vapid. To me, she went to war with the army she had, and through responding to her circumstances, whether by accident or design, she altered contemporary society. I also think her specific experiences imbibed with her with exceptional compassion, kindness, and care. So I think I’m cautiously, hopefully realistically, supportive of her. As a writer, you end up falling in love with all of your characters, at least to some extent. But more than anything else, I’m just fascinated. 

What did you think of the original book?

I think Andrew Morton, as a writer, was given the opportunity of a lifetime with that story, and he ran with it; he created the perfect book for the situation and the moment. I think, between those two kindred spirits, they created a book that precisely and accurately presented her version of events. He was the right man for the job, for sure. Of course, its not totally useful as historical record - the Princess, the book’s source, had a very flexible relationship to truth. But it is a perfect example of a skilled, compelling, tightly constructed piece of propaganda, and is the blueprint for the modern celebrity tell-all memoir. So, in that sense, the book industry owes Mr. Morton a huge debt. Between them, they created a new genre, and a highly profitable and influential one at that.

Do you think the tapes should have been made public?

I’m in two minds. I completely understand the argument that it was exploitative to release them, but I think, overall, I disagree. By releasing them, Morton was fully giving Princess Diana agency in death, something she fought for throughout her life. How many of us get a chance to leave a manifesto for the world to read, to present ourselves exactly and precisely as we wish to be seen and remembered? Also, from an academic standpoint, this is how history is written - journals, letters, secret government papers - they leak over time, and those things that were never intended to be seen come to light, and round out the historical record concerning these individuals. Ultimately, I think the greatest defence of their release is that it’s all true - even when she lies, its her truth. And its been very good for our theatre company, so I’m hesitant to bite the hand that feeds me. Obviously, if it really bothered me morally, I wouldn’t have created a show around it, I suppose.

What effect do you think the tapes had on the monarchy?

They were devastating. I think, for all the exaggeration and victimization they contain, they were a damning indictment of an institution, and a family, incapable of functioning in the modern world. It painted the Windsors as cold, callous, cruel and out of touch with their people, which I think they were. I also think the revelations about Charles, as a future king, really made people question the whole principle of hereditary privilege - clearly this man was objectively not the most fitting or deserving man for the job of Head of State, and yet he was going to get it anyway. They highlighted the inherent injustices of monarchy. The House of Windsor has responded to them - becoming a more transparent, human, emotive institution in the 25 years since. Thought she didn’t live to see it, they are performing Diana’s idea of monarchy. Isn’t that an exceptional victory for someone who was “thick as a plank,” a divorced Princess without a HRH?

Has Andrew Morton reached out to you about the show?

Andrew re-tweeted us when we reached out to him from Edinburgh in 2016, and over this past summer I got in touch with him and sent him the script. He has given us further support on his social media accounts, so he must have liked what he read - or at least not found it horribly offensive! I would love to have him be more involved dramaturgically, and hope to get in touch with him when I go back to Scotland after we wrap up here in Toronto. I believe he said something to the effect of “curious being a stage character” and called it a “fascinating four hander,” so thats great.

What has been the response? Has there been any criticism of the topic?

Its been interesting. We've had a range of responses, everything from people congratulating us for what they perceive as our negative portrayal of her, to people praising what they consider to be our generous portrays of her, to pro-monarchists loving it, to republicans loving it - which I, as a writer and actor, think is fantastic. I wanted to create a piece that encouraged questions and debate, and didn't answer anything for anyone. I don't think thats the purpose of art. Some people have told us they found it exploitative, but, as with the question about the release of the tapes themselves, I respond that its all true. Its her story, told on her terms. One person did tell us we were too young to be considering themes, ideas and stories such as this one - I'd never heard that as a criticism, and it did give me pause. But then I thought - well, we did do it! So take that!

You have taken the show to New York and Toronto. Where is the next stop?

As I said, I’m heading across to the UK next month, so hope to find a home for a London run next Spring ahead of our Off-Broadway premiere in New York in May. We have also completed filming on a SAG New Media web series version of the show, and are currently in discussion with distribution partners for a 2018 release on various digital platforms. We really believe that this show can continue to grow, develop and remain relevant to our audiences in the coming years. Watch this space!


© Marilyn Braun 2017

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